The Arizona Desert Lamp

Career opportunities: The fatal conceit of national service

Posted in Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 27 March 2009

Last week, the House of Representatives passed the GIVE Act, a bill that would renew the government-sponsored AmeriCorps volunteer program and massively expand “national service” programs targeted especially at high school and college students. Yesterday, the Senate passed its own version, the Serve America Act. Next week, the Senate bill will head to the House, where legislators will pick and choose the worst parts of both to send to the President and foist upon the American people.

Both bills call for a massive expansion of AmeriCorp, from 75,000 government-sponsored volunteer positions to 250,000. They would also create a flock of new federal programs. Four new “service corps” are foremost: the “Healthy Futures Corps,” “Clean Energy Corps,” “Education Corps,” and “Opportunity Corps.” But wait–there’s much, much more: the “ServeAmerica Fellowship” for full-time volunteers, the “Silver Scholarship” and “Encore Fellowship” for senior citizens, the “Volunteer Generation Fund” and “Community Solutions Fund” to hand out grants to local organizations, the “Innovation Fellowships” program for social entrepreneurs, the “National Service Reserve Corp” for first responders and emergency volunteers, “Youth Engagement Zones” in public schools, the “Campus of Service” program to provide grants to colleges and universities that encourage national service, and a nationwide “Call to Service” campaign.

All these corps will come with a cost: an estimated $6 billion, mostly used to expand grants and other incentives for service. Both bills would raise the education stipend for national servants to $5,350–the same as a Pell Grant, and establish a number of funds to dole out grants to various local volunteer programs. Interestingly, one portion of President Obama’s suggested “universal, voluntary citizen service” plan is notably absent: the $4,000 tax credit for college volunteers he proposed on the campaign trail.

They’re gonna have to introduce conscription

For now, the programs err on the “voluntary” side of Mr. Obama’s oxymoronic ideal. Though there are heavy incentives for national service, there are only hints that service might soon be “universal.” The House bill asks a bipartisan commission to consider “whether a workable, fair and reasonable mandatory service requirement for all able young people could be developed and how such a requirement could be implemented in a manner that would strengthen the social fabric of the nation.” Mr. Obama, his wife Michelle, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel have all indicated support for mandatory service in the past, but even though both bills had broad bipartisan support, it seems doubtful that actual youth conscription is a political possibility. Instead, any sort of mandatory service requirement would likely be imposed by attaching service requirements to federal education dollars–which means mandatory service might skip college campuses altogether.

Late last year, I made my case against the value and virtue of mandatory (or super-incentivized) service. But though this bill promotes “voluntary” national service, it’s still a bad idea on purely pragmatic grounds. Here are a few reasons:

What is seen, and what is not seen

What is seen in these bills is hundreds of thousands of new federally-sponsored volunteer opportunities–new jobs created at the stroke of the President’s pen. But consider what is not seen (it’s what my boy Bastiat would have wanted).

Americans already volunteer in massive numbers. In the past few years, volunteering has been at historic highs, with one in four Americans contributing a total of 8.1 billion hours of service last year alone. And college students are among the most eager: the number of college volunteers increased 20 percent between 2002 and 2005, and the most recent comprehensive survey of college volunteerism suggests that college students beat the national average by a full four percent. Our generation is indeed eager to serve–but they are having no trouble finding opportunities to do so without the help of the federal government.

Plus, volunteer jobs are still jobs. Indeed, few of the positions covered by this legislation are the sort of unpaid work you might think of when you hear “volunteer.” Those who join one of the new corps receive educational stipends and living allowances totaling thousands of dollars a year. Many are full-time, yearlong positions. These may be low-paying jobs, but this bill isn’t just about promoting volunteering–it’s also a job creation scheme.

Just like when government “creates” jobs in shovel-readying or monorail construction it destroys opportunities elsewhere in the economy, creating volunteer jobs displaces other opportunities that already exist, or that might have existed had government not intervened. A student who might otherwise have happily volunteered for free at, say, Tucson’s Community Food Bank might now join up with the “Healthy Futures Corps” and do the same sort of service at cost to taxpayers. In this way, expanding federally-funded service could crowd out the volunteer positions that already exist–and that college students have been quite willing to fill up for free for decades. Meanwhile, funding for that student’s stipend comes from the pockets of taxpayers, where it might have been put to better use.

More pernicious, just as government spending encourages private entrepreneurs to stop entrepreneur-ing and seek rents, massive expansion of federal volunteer jobs will destroy incentives for young entrepreneurs in the nonprofit sector. Why should a college student go through the trouble and expense of creating a new organization to do something for the community–say, helping Tucsonans install solar panels and replace water-wasting lawns with desert landscaping, like our very own ECOalition–when he could simply join the Clean Energy Corps and do whatever the federal government thinks is best for his community?

Worst, these bills privilege certain forms of service: volunteer work in public programs, for government agencies, and for private organizations approved by government and receiving government grant money. Over a third of all volunteers in the U.S. do volunteer work through their church or place of worship. But these bills prohibit service in programs that also include religious instruction. Students served in massive numbers encouraging others to vote this year. But civic service like running a voter registration drive is ineligible. Also prohibited: volunteering for anyone who might offer or oppose an abortion, support a union, or organize a protest. And of course, they privilege government volunteer work over other, equally important forms of indirect community service. The student who would have spent a few more hours each week in the lab conducting genome research if he hadn’t been enticed by the federal benefits of some new corps might otherwise have done more for humanity than a thousand government volunteers.

Ted Kennedy and George Miller are sure to trumpet the thousands of new government volunteer positions they’ve created–but they won’t help you see the opportunities they’ll displace, the entrepreneurs they’ll stifle, or the equally important forms of service that fall outside the public sphere.

Local knowledge

In addition to declaring some service animals more equal than others, these bills mean that the federal government will set the volunteer agenda from the top. My inner Hayek sheds a lone tear like a highwayside Indian.

Nonprofit groups might not be quite as integrated with the price system–that powerful tool for harnessing and transmitting information–as individuals and private firms, but they are still most powerful when they use local knowledge to their advantage. Local charities and agencies know their communities best, and most are organic institutions created to respond to local needs. A program helping old folks use eBay would be as absurd in western Sudan as a refugee camp in SaddleBrooke (well, time being, at least). But neither exist, because even volunteer agencies respond to supply and demand for their services.

Those organizations that employ local knowledge well are most effective. Casa De Los Niños knows the needs of poor children in Tucson because they interact with them every day. The federal Opportunity Corps does not–and can’t employ local knowledge as effectively as organizations that have grown organically to meet community needs.

To be fair, the parts of the bill that offer grants to and allow volunteers to work with local organizations might capture some of the utility of local knowledge. But much of the bill is command and control volunteerism. Take the four new corps, for example. The Healthy Futures Corps will be explicitly dedicated to “assisting economically disadvantaged individuals in navigating the health care system” (read: filling out forms in that other voluntary, universal system), “improving health literacy of patients,” “providing translation services at clinics and in emergency rooms,” and a host of other very specific objectives. The Clean Energy Corps is tasked with “weatherizing and retrofitting housing units for low-income households,” “conducting energy audits,” and “assisting in the development of local recycling programs,” among other assignments. The Opportunity Corp is dedicated to “providing financial literacy education to economically disadvantaged individuals,” “assisting in building, improving, and preserving affordable housing” (done!), and “train[ing] and deploy[ing] skilled musicians and artists to promote greater community unity.”

All well and good and heartwarming, but listing these specific actions is like drafting industrial policy for the nonprofit sector. Many of these are real needs, and many local organizations already perform these services. But the federal government suffers from the same knowledge problem with volunteer positions that it does with other jobs and prices and economic activity: it cannot know that this set of allocations does the most good the same way that a score of small, local organizations can. I’m all for energy audits–but I suspect that fighting poverty or supplementing our pitiful public school system are activities with far greater marginal benefit to society. Unfortunately, this plan dictates service priorities from the top, rather than letting them grow from the bottom and harness local knowledge as best they can.

Just another job scheme

Underneath the rhetoric, GIVE and Serve America are government jobs programs that happen to incentivize volunteering. As such, they suffer the same problems as other job “creation” schemes. Since the arbitrary target of 175,000 new volunteer positions is an end in itself, rather than 175,000 new positions created by organizations responding to real, recognized demand for their services, the programs will suffer from incentives for inefficiency. It’s far easier to meet the target with spoons rather than shovels, by creating unnecessary make-work volunteer positions rather than using human capital as efficiently as possible, as a private firm might (do you really want to make tea at the BBC?).

There are also requisite layers of federal bureaucracy that will divert resources to government and away from community service. These programs will likely be regressive, employing the poorest to serve the state for a stipend, while rich kids with no need for an extra Pell Grant ignore the incentives. And of course, the money taken from taxpayers to “create” new jobs in the nonprofit sector might well have been donated to community service organizations anyways, or used to benefit others by generating wealth through investment. (Plus, if the president gets his proposed cap on tax deductions for charitable donations, even more money that might have been given to private nonprofits will be redistributed to government).

The mandatory vision of the GIVE and Serve America acts is already morally dubious, though in the immortal words of Joe Strummer: “if they want to get you, well hell, you’ve got no choice.” But even the pragmatic side of a policy that massively expands government-funded volunteering is fraught with problems and inefficiencies. GIVE and Serve America will displace volunteer positions and stifle nonprofit innovation, dictate a volunteer agenda from the top, and face the same shortfalls as other government job schemes. In short, both acts are a disservice to the idea that private, nonprofit community service can and should exist free of government support and intervention. Unfortunately, it looks like this legislation will soon make its way to the President’s desk, and the idea that public service is government service will soon be signed into law.

2 Responses

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  1. […] 30, 2009 · No Comments Our friend Evan over at the Desert Lamp has a great, well-researched post up expressing his weariness about a few new bills about to be passed in Congress that seek to tie […]

  2. […] So it begins. From the Chronicle: Washington — President Obama is expected to sign legislation today that would expand the federal national-service programs by the largest amount in 50 years. […]

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